Susan Feehan has written a book about punctuation.
The paperback is already on Amazon and the e-book comes out on Friday.
I talked to her. This is what happened.
Any punctuation mistakes are mine, not her’s… erm… hers.
JOHN: So you won’t be a fan of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses… Does punctuation matter? I don’t think spelling was uniform until Dr Johnson published his dictionary, was it? Before that, all that mattered was that other people understood what you meant. Same with punctuation, isn’t it?
SUSAN: It’s not a book for GrammarNazis. They would take offence at the levity. I’ve done a couple of opening sections about Tribe 1 and Tribe 2. Tribe 1 are the GrammarNazis and Tribe 2 are the rest of us.
JOHN: So who is going to buy the book? The GrammarNazis are not going to buy it because they think they know everything and the illiterates won’t buy it because they can’t read.
SUSAN: It’s for people who just need a quick answer. I wrote it because, as a tutor, doing training courses, I have always wanted to look for examples.
JOHN: Examples of… ?
SUSAN: Say, for instance, brackets. You don’t want to wade through a whole load which has everything you DON’T want to know about brackets but one thing you do. So I have split everything into sections. It is quick and easy.
If it takes two minutes to look something up, you will do it.
If it takes ten minutes, you will blag your way through.
JOHN: You are a tutor. Whom do you tute?
SUSAN: I did have a stint at university mentoring students in newspaper production and, well, there’s publishers’ staff. People who just need a bit of a refresher. When they’re editing. Grammar, punctuation, whatever.
JOHN: Surely sub-editors should not need tutoring? If they don’t know it, they shouldn’t be employed.
SUSAN: Well, the thing is, sub-editing is now an entry job. When I was first training on newspapers, you started as an editorial assistant or a junior reporter – you started as a junior writer in any form, served your time – your apprenticeship, so to speak, of about three years – and then they considered you expert enough to be paid full wage. After that, you could segue into subbing.
But, once it all became digital, the software became the prerequisite – It became Must be Quark friendly or, now, it’s Must be InDesign friendly. The software became the reason you were getting employed and the language skills became secondary.
Often, now, people are taking or are given a job as a sub-editor so they can do a hop-over into the writing side. It doesn’t make any sense to me – or anyone else I know. You’ve got juniors put in the position of changing the work of writers who are presumably more experienced. And they now do need to know more than they once would have done. In the past, the sub-editors would have been much more experienced.
JOHN: So we have all these illiterate sub-editors?
SUSAN: I wouldn’t call them illiterate.
JOHN: Different publications have different house styles, so punctuation rules don’t really mean anything, do they? For example… Single quotation marks or double quotation marks?
SUSAN: Well, some of that is house style but often, in the UK, we would generally use single quotes first, then doubles within singles. The Americans would do singles within doubles.
JOHN: Oh… I always do the American way, alas.
SUSAN: And how do you introduce a quote? With a colon or a comma? A colon is very journalistic.
JOHN: I do whatever looks better in a particular sentence.
JOHN: You started off as a…?
SUSAN: A lowly junior reporter on a magazine called Display International and another one called Do It Yourself Retailing.
JOHN: You did that because you wanted to be a great writer?
SUSAN: Well, I found out very quickly that I wanted to be a sub-editor. On a newspaper or magazine, if you find a subject you are prepared to write about for the next 30 years – medical, cinema, crime, whatever – then you are fixed. If you can’t find that subject, then you are better off being a sub-editor, because there your joy is in the process and the language not the subject. You can do your job on any subject and still love the process of writing.
JOHN: You wanted to be a sub for the rest of your life?
SUSAN: I certainly did for a hefty while. Then I thought: Aaah! Perhaps I should write something myself. And that’s when I started doing the screenplay thing. There was The Kiss, a romantic comedy.
JOHN: Was that filmed?
SUSAN: We raised the money for it about four years ago – all $15 million of it – but the trouble was it all came from one investor and the trouble comes when one investor thinks he’s been hanging around too long and he takes the money elsewhere.
JOHN: You have written five screenplays.
SUSAN: I have, but I am turning them into novels. One I am going to do as a play.
JOHN: Three are already award-winning and they have not even been made.
SUSAN: You can win lots of screenplay awards without them getting made.
JOHN: Make Punctuation Your Bitch is not your first book.
SUSAN: No. There was How To Write Well When You Don’t Know Where To Start. That was three years ago. For some reason the Canadians in particular loved it. It was in the Top Ten in the entire Kindle Store in Canada, not just in its niche.
JOHN: Is it on Amazon?
SUSAN: It was, but I’ve taken it down because I’m going to update it.
JOHN: Are there punctuation differences between the British and Americans?
SUSAN: Yes. And there are Canadian and Australian differences as well. Sometimes they side with the Americans and sometimes they follow us. I have some in the book. The Americans put time at 3:30 with a colon and we do 3.30 with a dot; but now we are starting to take on the colon.
JOHN: In lists, I was always taught that, if you have A, B, C and D, you should never have a comma between the last two – A, B, C, and D – because the commas are standing-in for the word ‘and’. So, by adding a comma, you are actually saying “A and B and C and and D”
SUSAN: That’s not quite true, because it’s ‘The Oxford Comma’… Called that because it was created by Oxford University Press.
The example given in my book is: “Tom dedicated the book to his parents, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela”. That actually means – without the second comma – that his parents are the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela.
But, if you put a comma after the Dalai Lama – “Tom dedicated the book to his parents, the Dalai Lama, and Nelson Mandela” – you have differentiated between them.
JOHN: But one comma isn’t worth losing sleep over, is it?
SUSAN: I have a story at the front of my book about the Five Million Dollar Oxford Comma.
There was a dairy in Maine where they had a contract that did not have an Oxford Comma in it. Their drivers sued them about what the contract actually meant and the drivers won $5 million in back-overtime.
There was another case between two telephone companies where there was a comma in dispute and, again it cost one company $2 million.
JOHN: So correct punctuation is here to stay.
SUSAN: I think, in 30 years time, apostrophes won’t exist.
SUSAN: But I think the smart money is on semi-colons dying out first.
JOHN: You will have to constantly update your books. Your next one is…?
SUSAN: There might be a Make Structure Your Bitch book.
JOHN: What is structure?
SUSAN: Structure in writing. So the inverted pyramid thing will come in there. And structuring sentences and paragraphs and how to keep the reader hooked.
JOHN: What is the worst crime in punctuation?
SUSAN: Ultimately, it is inconsistency.